In Focus
June 2011

Clearing the Indian Skies

The skies over India aren't always pretty sight. In fact, according to a recent report from the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia), Delhi, India's second most populous city, has seen its air quality worsen since 2001.

In 2008, for example, nitrogen oxides (NOx) averaged 45 micrograms per cubic meter, higher than allowed under India's national air quality standards. Much of India's air pollution comes from diesel sources and construction dust, but not all of it.

"Petrol vehicles still release emissions, for example, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides," said Sophie Punte, executive director of CAI-Asia.

There are reasons why the country's air quality is declining. Fortunately, those same drivers also could lead to an improved situation.

The motorization index in India is currently about a tenth of developed regions like the U.S.A. and Europe but is climbing rapidly. The Centre for Science and Environment, an environmental advocacy group based in New Delhi, estimates that the Indian capital is adding 300,000 cars a year. For India as a whole, figures from CAI-Asia and others show that the vehicle population will more than double between 2005 and 2015, from 50 million to 125 million in 10 years.

Data from the New Delhi-based Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), a trade association, show that sales in 2009-2010 alone were 12.3 million, with three out of four vehicles being two-wheelers. The increasing number of vehicles results in more pollution, and emission standards will have to be tightened in the future to keep things from getting worse.

That will be challenging, according to a presentation authored Tata Motors' A.K. Jindal at the 17th Annual Fuels & Lubes Asia Conference in Singapore in March. Speaking on his behalf, K.K. Gandhi, technical director of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), pointed out that Indian vehicles tend to be underpowered, as compared to vehicles in Europe. In addition, Indian roads are congested and poorly constructed. Fuel adulteration is rampant.

These factors make optimization difficult. They also prevent the use of such techniques as lowering clearance to improve aerodynamics or downsizing to improve fuel efficiency. Since many Indian vehicles are fairly simple two-wheelers, sophisticated emission reduction technologies aren’t feasible.
There also is the problem that vehicles are often overloaded and emission control mechanisms are defeated, once a car or truck is on the road. “Because of the lack of infrastructure and enforcement mechanisms, so far it [emissions compliance] has not been implemented,” said Gandhi.

In comparisons of Indian fuels to what is specified elsewhere in the world, a few parameters highlight some significant differences with emissions, safety or fuel efficiency implications. One is sulfur in diesel fuel. A typical Indian value is 350 ppm (parts per million) while Europe’s EN590 calls for less than 10 ppm. Higher sulfur content in either diesel fuel or gasoline poisons most emissions control technologies.

Another diesel parameter difference is flash point, which SIAM’s Gandhi said runs 35oC in India versus 55oC in Europe. That difference makes the fuel more prone to catch fire in the event of an accident and many such fires have been reported, he said.

Finally, there is the octane number for petrol, which in India runs between 89 and 91 for most fuel versus 95 or higher elsewhere. The octane numbers have been relaxed even more in some regions of India for economic reasons, Gandhi said. He would like to see octane in widely available Indian fuels raised to as much as 95.

“We need to increase our octane numbers, which is another requirement and for which we are at a low level, for better fuel economy,” he said.

Fortunately, the soaring number of vehicles also points the way to a pollution solution. For one thing, the expanding fleet is a sign of growing wealth. A wealthier population will demand cleaner air and will be better able to afford it.

What’s more, growth of the automotive industry is a goal of the Indian government, with a 2006 mission plan calling for automobiles and auto components to account for more than 10 percent of GDP and employ more than 25 million people by 2016. The objective is to increase output fourfold to US$145 billion. Indian automakers are targeting Europe and North America to help achieve these lofty goals.

To achieve these goals, Indian vehicles will have to meet not only safety, but also emissions standards, in Europe and North America. Thus, aligning India's vehicle and emission standards with those of Europe and the U.S. would help Indian automakers who aspire to export vehicles to the west.

Fittingly, the country has adopted European emission standards. A Bharat Stage 3 (BS3) is the same as Euro 3, while BS4 is equivalent to Euro 4. BS3 has an allowable NOx limit of 0.15 grams per kilometer, while BS4 sets this value at 0.08 for passenger cars.

In April 2010, India implemented a split BS3/BS4 regulatory regime, with 13 cities adhering to the higher BS4 standard while the rest of the country remained one stage behind. However, those 13 cities account for 70% of the country’s light vehicle sales, according to V. G. Ramakrishnan, senior director for automotive and transportation practice for South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa at the consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan.

The transition to the stricter standard had little negative effect on vehicle sales, which grew by more than 30% in 2010. A few models have been discontinued, as manufacturers opted not to upgrade their engines to meet the new emissions norms. But there has been little change in the make-up of the vehicle fleet.

“India has been a small car market for reasons like the lower cost of the vehicle, fuel efficiency and practical issues like road congestion and limited parking space availability,” Ramakrishnan said.

The transition did impact India’s refineries, all of which had to upgrade to meet BS4 fuel specifications.  There is currently not enough refining capacity to meet the entire country’s needs for BS4-compliant fuels, Ramakrishnan noted.

European standards don’t stop at Euro 4. Euro 5 has already been implemented and Euro 6 is due to be in place in 2014. Both standards will reduce NOx to 0.060 grams per km and introduce particulate matter limits for the first time for gasline-powered direct injection engines.

Several automakers which manufacture in India already meet Euro 5 standards. Both Maruti Suzuki India Ltd., a local joint venture with Japan's Suzuki Motor Corp., and South Korea's Hyundai Motor already export Indian made Euro 5-compliant vehicles to Europe.

A hurdle in implementing BS5 and BS6 is the additional investments that will have to be made. For example, there will be a need to upgrade India's refineries, which are mostly public sector undertakings or PSUs. Also, car and truck makers may have to implement selective catalytic reduction, exhaust gas recirculation, a combination of both, or another technology to meet these targets.

In considering the future, SIAM’s Gandhi noted that demand for improved vehicle fuel efficiency is driven directly by consumers. On the other hand, demand for better vehicle pollution control technologies is government-driven and comes as the population's disposable income grows and more can afford these expensive technologies.

Speaking of the situation in India, Gandhi said, “Emission reduction shall be driven by regulatory requirements, which is true for anywhere in the world.”

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